Info

Your Anxiety Toolkit - Anxiety & OCD Strategies for Everyday

Your Anxiety Toolkit Podcast delivers effective, compassionate, & science-based tools for anyone with Anxiety, OCD, Panic, and Depression.
RSS Feed
Your Anxiety Toolkit - Anxiety & OCD Strategies for Everyday
2024
February
January


2023
December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January


2022
December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January


2021
December
November
October
September
August
June
May
April
March
February
January


2020
December
November
October
September
July
June
May
April
March
February
January


2019
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January


2018
December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January


2017
December
November
October
September
August
July
May
April
March
January


2016
October
September
July
June
May
April
March


All Episodes
Archives
Now displaying: November, 2023
Nov 24, 2023

Today, we are going to talk about what to do when feeling hopeless. Today’s episode was actually inspired by one of our amazing Your Anxiety Toolkit podcast listeners. They wrote in and asked a question about hopelessness, and I thought it was so important and so relevant in today’s day, with the news being scary and everybody struggling and still readjusting to COVID, mental health, and mental illnesses at an all-time high. I really felt that this was important for us to talk about. So, let’s do this together. We’re going to take it step by step, and we’re going to do it with a whole lot of self-compassion. So let’s talk about what to do when feeling hopeless.

 Alright folks, here is the question that was posed to me. It goes like this:

“I have been really struggling with hopelessness lately. It feels like my life has no real meaning, and I feel pretty aimless. The things in my life that I want to improve need so much work to improve, such as career, relationship, family stuff. And I have large parts that are out of my control, which feels pretty discouraging despite lots of effort to improve them. I’m working to accept these feelings and trying to stay out of rumination, but it does feel hopeless a lot of the time. What are you telling folks who are in a similar position?”

Now, number one, I so resonate with this question. As a clinician, a human, a mom, and someone with a chronic illness, I hear you in this question, and I don’t think you’re alone. In fact, I am a member of a pretty large online group of therapists, and I wanted to do my homework for today. So I left the question, saying, when you have clients who are experiencing hopelessness and they’re feeling stuck, what do you say? A lot of them were coming with these such humble responses of saying, “To be honest, I tell them the truth, which is I don’t know the answer. I too struggle with this.” Or they’ll say, “I often let them know that they’re not alone in this and that this is such something that collectively we’re all going through.” And I loved that they were so real and dropped into reality on the truth of this, the pain of this, and the confusion of this topic. 

Now, in addition to that, there were also some amazing pieces of advice, and some of them I really agreed with. I’m going to include them here when we go through specifically some tools that you can use to help you when you’re struggling with this feeling of hopelessness or feeling like what’s the point and feeling like there’s no meaning to life. 

Let’s talk about it. Number one—let me just be real with you—is I too have struggled with this. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that I actually sought out therapy for this specific issue. I looked around my life, and I have these two beautiful children, I have two businesses and a career that I love, and I still felt hopeless. I still felt like this sense of what’s the point? What’s the meaning of all this? I’m working my butt off, trying to manage all the things. What is the real point? It felt a little like an existential crisis, to be honest. 

I love that this person reached out to ask this question. I do encourage you all, if you’re struggling with this and navigating this, do go and seek therapy. I’m going to be giving you some tools on how to manage this today, but in no way do I think that my solutions are going to be exactly what you need to hear. There may be some of them that are super helpful for you, but I strongly encourage you to go and navigate them on your own. 

Through exploring this, I found that there were some unmet needs that I was not paying attention to. I found that I was grieving living in a country that’s not my home country. So many parts of it were also related to my chronic illness. And so it was very personal work, and I encourage you too to do that personal work. 

But, given that we’re here today, I also want to give you some strategies, skills, and direction if you too are wondering what to do when feeling hopeless. Let’s do this together.

What Do To When Feeling Hopeless

THERAPY FOR HOPELESSNESS

The first thing here is I love that the person who wrote this said, “I’m working at accepting the feelings.” I think that that is probably the biggest key here, which is not accepting that they’ll be there forever but instead accepting that they’re here right now and reminding yourself that they’re temporary. 

HOPELESSNESS IS A TEMPORARY EMOTION

Hopelessness, like any other emotion, is a temporary emotion. It will rise and fall, rise and fall, and rise and fall. It doesn’t mean that you’ll always feel this way. What we can do is, while we’re accepting it, I often ask my patients, “As you accept it, let’s also be very curious about any resistance you have in your body as you practice accepting.” 

I’ve had clients who’ve sat on the couch of my office and said, “No, no, I’m accepting it.” But every part of their body is clenched up. Every part of their face is resistant. They’re obviously accepting that it is here, but also trying to push against it, also trying not to feel it. Yes, accepting feelings is important, but are you creating a safe place for that emotion to rise and fall within you? 

Here, we can check in with our bodies. Where is this discomfort in my body? Where am I holding tension around it? Is there a way I can soften around this experience of hopelessness first? And that can be so important as we’re navigating hopelessness and finding meaning in our lives. 

HONOR THAT THIS IS HARD FOR YOU

The next thing I’m going to encourage you to do is first honor just how hard things are for you. Often, that might be just a moment of saying, “This is really hard for me. Absolutely. This is very hard for me.” 

OFFER SELF-COMPASSION WHEN YOU FEEL HOPELESS

The next piece here is we want to offer as much compassion as we can. We want to nurture the fact that you’re going through an incredibly hard thing or things. You’re trying so hard. You’re exhausted. You’re feeling lost. You might even be feeling like, “I don’t even know which direction I’m going. I’m just going and getting through the day.” We want to create as much compassion as we can for that. 

Now, if you are new to the work of self-compassion, there are so many resources online. We have a meditation vault with tons of different meditations for self-compassion at CBT School. They’re there for you if you’re really wanting to embark on this practice. We’ve also got tons of other episodes of Your Anxiety Toolkit on self-compassion as well. 

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR CATASTROPHIZATION

The next thing I want you to think about here is keep an eye on how you’re doing things throughout the day. I’ll tell you a story. Actually, as I did this work for myself when I went into therapy, I looked at my schedule every morning, and all I could see was just a whole bunch of things I had to do. It was just like a list of things that I had to do. It felt like trash things I had to do, even though many of them were joyful things that I love doing and that I’ve signed up to do. But what I noticed was I was looking at the day as if it was just a mountain of chores instead of staying very present and mindful, doing one thing at a time, and practicing non-judgment, curiosity, and kindness as I do those things. 

BREAK THINGS DOWN INTO SMALL, DOABLE STEPS

What I’m going to encourage you to do is break things down into small, doable steps. When you look at your life and you think, oh my goodness, in the case of this question of relationships, career, work—when you look at all of that, it can become so overwhelming. Maybe sit down, get a notepad, and just pick one thing you want to work on right now, one thing that you can do from a place of wisdom and being effective and kind, and just focus on seeing if you can achieve and accomplish that one thing. Chances are, you might already be doing that, but there’s a piece that you’ve missed, and I can guarantee you’ve missed it—you’ve forgotten to celebrate the fact that you got a small step done. 

Often, when things feel so huge, we finish something, and then we just move on to the next thing that we have to do. And that’s when things do feel like there’s no meaning, there’s no point to this life. We’re just in the motions, going with the cycles. We forget to celebrate, validate, and recognize the accomplishments that we’ve made. We forget to go, “Yeah, that’s a big deal. Good for you, you did that,” and take that time to celebrate it. Because again, as I said to you, I was looking at my life going, “Everything looks mostly pretty good. I’ve got this pretty severe chronic illness, but otherwise, things are going well.” But I realized I was just doing thing after thing after thing and after thing and not stopping to go, “Wow, good job. You’re taking care of your kids. Great job, you did something for yourself today,” or “Wow, you accomplished that one thing, and that was really hard.” We’ve got to celebrate our wins. 

STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHERS

The next piece of that is, often, people who get stuck in the day-to-day feeling like it’s Groundhog’s Day and there’s no real point, that’s because they’re comparing their experience to somebody else’s. They’re comparing their day-to-day with someone on social media who has made it look beautiful, they’ve got beautiful filters on, and everything looks really great. We’re making a lot of comparisons between how they’re doing and how we’re doing. I want to encourage you, please do not compare your wins and struggles to other people’s wins and struggles. That is a recipe for feeling hopeless, it’s a recipe for feeling depressed, and it’s a recipe for feeling like you’re never going to be enough. It’s so important. 

THREE THEMES OF DEPRESSION

The next thing I want you to do is catch yourself in the distorted thinking. Now, here is something you must take away from today—depression commonly has three themes. The first one is hopelessness—feeling like there is no hope. The second one is helplessness, feeling like no one can help you, that there’s no point, there’s no one can help you with your problem. And the last one is worthlessness, which is “I have no value.” 

These three themes show up in our thinking and in our cognitions. I’ve done episodes in the past where I’d say depression is a liar. It tells lies all day. If you aren’t able to detect and correct those lies, you’re going to start believing them. Thoughts that are just depressive thoughts will start to become beliefs. Once they become beliefs, you start acting them out in many ways in your life.

 What we want to do when we’re treating depression in therapy is actually slow down and be very mindful of your thoughts about the world, your thoughts about yourself, and your thoughts about your future. Look at where the distorted thoughts are and correct them. 


We have a course on CBTSchool.com called Overcoming Depression, and the whole middle section of that course is teaching you how to identify cognitive distortions or errors in thinking and how to correct them. And that is a crucial part of managing depression. Because depression tells us lies all day. It tells us, “There’s no hope. You’re not doing good enough. You’re not good. There’s no hope for you. No one can help you. You’re just a piece of trash. You’re a loser. It should be easy. Why is it so hard for you?” It might even say, “Look at you, you’ve got A, B, and C, and other people have it so much worse than you. So, what’s your problem?” It just tells you all of these judgmental, horrible, mean things that are not true. 

What we can do and what we do in the course, Overcoming Depression, is we identify those thoughts. We understand and acknowledge the presence of them. We maybe take a little look into what they’re trying to get to, what they’re trying to say. And then we work at coming up with alternative thoughts that feel helpful, compassionate, effective, and true.

One of the tools we use in overcoming depression is we pretend that we’re in a court of law, and we have this scene where we say, “Okay, if you were to bring your depressive thoughts to a court of law, would the jury agree or disagree? Would the judge throw your case out?” Often, what happens is we have thoughts. Like, minimizing the positive is one kind of distorted thought we go through. There are many different types of distorted thoughts, but let’s say minimizing the positive. Let’s say you did something positive and you say, “No. I know I completed that, but it should have been easier,” or “I should have done it faster,” or “It shouldn’t have been that difficult.” That’s minimizing the positive.

We would go, “Okay, if we were to take that to court, if we were to take that claim to court, what would the jury and what would the judge say?” The judge would not agree with that. They would say, “No, you completed the thing, and it’s okay that it’s hard. I’m tossing this out of the court. You’re wasting my time.” And so we want to be able to identify that and look at another example being a labeling distorted thought, like, “You’re a loser. You should be doing better.”

In a court of law, the jury would look at the evidence and go, “No, it looks like you’re handling a lot right now. It looks like you’re handling many things. It makes sense that you feel that way, but it looks like you have many pieces of evidence to show that you’re not a loser. Let’s throw the case out. Case dismissed.” We want to make sure you’re doing that because the chances are, as you’re going through these hard things, as you’re navigating the day, you’re forgetting to check the facts. We’ve got to check the facts in depression. It’s so important.

REMEMBER, YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS

The next thing we have to do is remind yourself that you can do hard things. When the world feels like it’s a mountain of just chores and things in check boxes and to-do’s, we often just get overwhelmed with it, and it’s like, “I can’t do this.” I will say to you, when I actually was struggling the most with my chronic illness and I did get therapy for this, the thought we identified the most was this repetitive, consistent, nagging thought, “I can’t do this.” I probably thought “I can’t do this” about 150 times a day, minimum. Even as I was doing things, I was having the thought, “I can’t do these things.” As I was taking an MRI or helping my kids or working on my business—even as I was doing them, I was telling myself, “You can’t do this,” as I was doing them, which again shows how our thinking can really distort and make things so much worse if we don’t catch them. 

We have to remind ourselves we can do hard things. We’re already doing hard things. That baby steps at a time can make small progress. There’s no race. There’s no finish line. We’re not here to beat other people or compare ourselves to other people’s timelines. This is our timeline, and we’re going to let it take as long as it needs. We’re going to be gentle. We’re just going to do one hard thing at a time. 

FIND SUPPORT

Another thing I want you to remember here when you’re struggling with hopelessness is to find support. When we feel hopeless, we feel alone. When we feel hopeless, we feel isolated. We feel like we’re the only one going through this. But there are so many people who are experiencing this. Sometimes it’s just saying, “This is a hard season for me.” You’d be shocked at how many other people come out and go, “Yeah, me too.” 

So find support in others who are in the thick of it, who are also trying to work on hopelessness, what’s the real meaning, and so forth. 

FIND PLEASURABLE ACTIVITIES

And then the last piece here that I think is the foundation of this work is, make sure you’re implementing pleasurable activities in your day. When somebody has depression and hopelessness, what we often do in therapy, and we do this in Overcoming Depression, the course as well, is we look at your day, and often people with depression do not schedule pleasure. They do not input pleasurable, value-driven exercises into their day because depression often will say, “What’s the point? Don’t even bother. You used to like doing painting, but what’s the point? You’re not going to enjoy it, so don’t do it,” or “You’re not good. You’re never going to be good at it, so don’t do it.” 

As we take pleasure out of our lives, it adds to this feeling of what is the meaning because the truth is, the meaning of life, who knows what it truly is? It’s different for every person. But a big piece of you finding what’s meaningful to you is acting according to your values and doing the things that feel lovely, nourishing, and yummy to you. My guess is, you’re not doing a lot of that. You’re not doing a lot of yummy, nourishing, pleasurable, fun activities. 

I get it, depression isn’t going to let you have all the fun. It’s not going to let you have a 10 out of 10 fun. But even if we get a 2 out of 10 pleasure or 4 out of 10 pleasure, let’s take it. Let’s do it even just to get the 4 out of 10 pleasure, 10 being the highest level of pleasure. Try not to rid yourself of activities that used to bring you joy.

 It’s also a big piece here when we find meaning. This is a really big topic in the field of therapy and psychotherapy. There is a beautiful book, which I would encourage you to read, called Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s by Viktor Frankl. It was one of the first books that were recommended in my master’s degree as I was training to become a therapist. It will bring a beautiful sense of understanding of making meaning in your life, and hopefully would be a beautiful supplement to the work that we’re doing here, and a compliment to you, finding what’s meaningful to you. Sometimes it means we have to reshuffle our lives a little bit. 

 When I did this work personally, I had to really go, “Okay, you’re working too much. I know it’s scary to slow down, but you’re lost. You’ve lost yourself. You’re going to have to slow down.” Or it might be, “Wow, your schedule is too full with just appointments and soccer practice and swim lessons and all the things. We’re going to have to slow down and have a little more fun. Play a little more. Sit a little more. Read a little more. Be with your family. Actually, be with them instead of just going through the motions.” We can’t get caught up in the day-to-day and not implement that pleasurable thing.

 And then the last part of that is, I’m going to offer to you one sort of final idea for what to do when feeling hopeless, and it is, please try to stop fixing yourself all the time. In my experience as a clinician, the people who often do get hopeless and helpless and feel depressed are the ones who constantly tell themselves they need to be more, need to be better, that something has to change, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. I want to offer to you that there is nothing wrong with you, even if you’re struggling with a mental illness right now. Try to catch your constant need to fix yourself. Try to just live. Identify what your values are and see if you can get your behaviors and life to line up with those. 

This striving that we have today in our pop culture of constantly having to be better, constantly having to have self-help books and being better, that is exhausting, and that is not the meaning of life. The meaning of life for me now that I’ve done the work isn’t the grand things and achievements. The meaning of life is actually quite silly and simple. In comparison, it’s sitting in the sunlight and letting the sun hit my face. It’s just hearing a laugh of my child. Nothing huge, doesn’t need to require massive wins. It might be just holding space for my emotions, honoring my needs, identifying my unmet needs, and doing what I can to meet those. 

I’m not here to tell you in any way that I know what the meaning of your life is. I’m just telling you what the meaning of mine is. But I encourage you to enter this practice, to leave today, doing this as kindly, as gently, and as respectfully and compassionately as you can.

 You’re going through a hard season. These are hard times. These are confusing times. I hope that with little baby steps, you changing your perspective and giving yourself the opportunity to just do one thing at a time and slow it all down will be helpful for you. 

Have a wonderful day. If you’re wanting any of the resources that we have listed today, you can check the show notes, or you can also go to CBTSchool.com and learn more about our online resources there. 

Have a wonderful day, everybody.

Nov 17, 2023

Kimberley: Welcome, everybody. This is a very exciting episode. I know I’m going to learn so much. Today, we have Caitlin Pinciotti and Shala Nicely, and we’re talking about when OCD and PTSD collide and intertwine and how that plays out. This is actually a topic I think we need to talk about more.



When OCD and PTSD Collide (with Shala Nicely & Caitlin Pinciotti)

Welcome, Caitlin, and welcome, Shala.

Caitlin: Thank you.

Shala: Thanks.

Kimberley: Okay. Let’s first do a little introduction. Caitlin, would you like to go first introducing yourself?

Caitlin: Sure thing. I’m Caitlin Pinciotti. I’m a licensed clinical psychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. I also serve as a co-chair for the IOCDF Trauma and PTSD and OCD SIG. If people are interested in that special interest group as well, that’s something that’s available and up and running now.

Most of my research specifically focuses on OCD, trauma, and PTSD, and particularly the overlap of these things. That’s been sort of my focus for the last several years. I’m excited to be here and talk more about this topic.

Kimberley: Thank you. You’re doing amazing work. I’ve loved being a part of just watching all of this great research that you’re doing. Shala, would you like to introduce yourself?

Shala: Yes. I’m Shala Nicely. I am a licensed professional counselor, and I specialize in the treatment of OCD and related disorders. I am the author of Is Fred in the Refrigerator?: Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life, which is my story, and then co-author with Jon Hershfield of Everyday Mindfulness for OCD: Tips, Tricks, and Skills for Living Joyfully. I also produce the Shoulders Back! newsletter. It has tips and resources for taming OCD.

Kimberley: Shoulders Back! was actually the inspiration for this episode. Shala, you recently wrote an article about post-traumatic OCD or how PTSD and OCD collide. Can you tell us about your story, particularly going back to, I think you mentioned, May 2020, and what brought you to write that article?

Shala: Sure, and thank you very much for having Caitlin and me on today because I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this and to get more information out in the world about this intertwined combination of PTSD and OCD. In May of 2020, I moved to a new house, the house that I’m in now. Of course, we had just started the pandemic, and so everybody was working at home, including me. The house that I moved into was in a brand new neighborhood.

While the houses on this side of me were completed, the houses behind me and on that side were not completed. I didn’t think anything of that when I moved in. But what I moved into was a situation where I was in a construction zone all the time. I was working at home, so there was no escape from it.

One day I was walking behind my house, where most of the houses were in the process of being built and there were no sidewalks. As I was walking down the street, I saw, down at the end of the street, a big forklift come down the street where I was walking with my two little dogs backwards at a really high rate of speed, and the forklift driver seemed to be looking that way, and he was going that way. It happened so fast because he was going so quickly that all of a sudden I realized he was going to hit us, my dogs and me, and there was no place for us to go because we were on the road because there was nowhere else for us to be. I screamed bloody murder, and he heard me. I mean, that’s how loud I screamed, and he stopped. That was not all that pleasant. I was upset. He was not happy. But we moved on. But my brain didn’t move on. 

After that incident, what I noticed was I was becoming really hypervigilant in my own house and finding the construction equipment. If I go outside, I tense up just knowing that construction equipment is there. Over time, my sleep started becoming disturbed. I started to have flashbacks and what I call flash-forwards, where I would think about all these horrible things that could happen to me that hadn’t happened to me yet but could. I’d get lost in these violent fantasies of what might happen and what I need to do to prevent that. 

I realized that I seemed to be developing symptoms of PTSD. This is where being a therapist was actually quite helpful because I pulled the DSM open one night and I started going through symptoms of PTSD. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I think I have PTSD.” 

I think what happened, because having a forklift driver almost hit you, doesn’t seem like that could possibly cause PTSD. But if you look at my history, I think that created a link in my brain to an accident I was in when I was four where I did almost die, which is when my mom and I were standing on the side of a road, about to cross. We were going to go between two parked cars. My mom and I stepped between two parked cars, and there was a man driving down the road who was legally blind, and he mistook the line of parked cars where we were standing as moving traffic. He plowed into the end of all the parked cars, which of course made them accordion in, and my mom and I were in the middle of that. I was very seriously injured and probably almost died. My mom was, too. Several months in the hospital, all of that. 

Of course, at that point—that was 1975—there was no PTSD, because I think— Caitlin, you can correct me—it didn’t become a diagnosis until 1980. I have had symptoms—small, low-level symptoms of PTSD probably on and off most of my life, but so low-level, not diagnosable, and not really causing any sort of problems. But I think what happened in my head was that when that forklift almost hit me, it made my brain think, “Oh my gosh, we’re in that situation again,” because the forklift was huge. It was the same scale to me as an adult as that car that I was crushed between was when I was four. I think my brain just got confused. Because I was stuck with this construction equipment all day long and I didn’t get any break from it, it just made my brain think more and more and more, “Boy, we are really in danger.” Our lives are basically threatened all the time. 

That began my journey of figuring out what was going on with me and then also trying to understand why my OCD seemed to be getting worse and jumping in to help because I seemed to get all these compulsions that were designed to keep me safe from this construction equipment. It created a process where I was trying to figure out, "What is this? I’ve got both PTSD now, I’ve got OCD flaring up, how do I deal with this? What do I do?"

The reason why I wanted to write the article for Shoulders Back! and why I asked Caitlin to write it with me was because there just isn’t a lot of information out there about this combination where people have PTSD or some sort of trauma, and then the OCD jumps in to help. Now you’ve got a combination of disorders where you’ve got trauma or PTSD and OCD, and they’re merging together to try to protect you. That’s what they think they’re doing. They’re trying to help you stay safe, but really, what they’re doing is they’re making your life smaller and smaller and smaller. 

I wanted to write this article for Shoulders Back! to let people know about my experience so that other people going through this aren’t alone. I wanted to ask Caitlin to write it with me because I wanted an expert in this to talk about what it is, how we treat it, what hope do we have for people who are experiencing this going forward.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OCD AND PTSD (AND POST-TRAUMATIC OCD) 

Kimberley: Thank you for sharing that. I do encourage people; I’ll link in the show notes if they want to go and read the article as well. Caitlin, from a clinical perspective, what was going on for Shala? Can you break down the differences between OCD and PTSD and what’s happening to her?

Caitlin: Sure. First, I want to start by thanking Shala again for sharing that story. I know you and I talked about this one-on-one, but I think really sharing personal stories like that obviously involves a lot of courage and vulnerability. It’s just so helpful for people to hear examples and to really resonate with, “Wow, maybe I’m not so different or so alone. I thought I was the only one who had experiences like this.” I just want to publicly thank you again for writing that blog and being willing to share these really horrible experiences that you had. 

In terms of how we would look at this clinically, it’s not uncommon for people to, like Shala described, experience trauma and have these low-level symptoms for a while that don’t really emerge or don’t really reach the threshold of being diagnosable. This can happen, for example, with veterans who return home from war, and it might not be until decades later that they have some sort of significant life event or change. Maybe they’ve retired, or they’re experiencing more stress, or maybe, like Shala, they're experiencing another trauma, and it just brings everything up. This kind of delayed onset of PTSD is, for sure, not abnormal. 

In this case, it sounds like, just like Shala described, that her OCD really latched onto the trauma, that she had these experiences that reinforced each other. Right now, I’ve had two experiences where being around moving vehicles has been really dangerous for me.

Just like you said, I think you did such a beautiful job of saying that the OCD and PTSD colluded in a way to keep you “safe.” That’s the function of it. But of course, we know that those things go to the extreme and can make our lives very small and very distressing. 

What Shala described about using these compulsions to try to prevent future trauma is something that we see a lot in people who have comorbid OCD and PTSD. We’re doing some research now on the different ways that OCD and trauma can intersect. And that’s something that keeps coming up as people say, “I engaged in these compulsions as a way to try to prevent the trauma from happening to me again or happening to someone else. Or maybe my compulsions gave me a sense of control, predictability, or certainty about something related to the trauma.” This kind of presentation of OCD sort of functioning as protection against trauma or coping with past trauma as well is really common.

STATISTICS OF OCD AND PTSD

Kimberley: Would you share a little bit about the statistics between OCD and PTSD and the overlap?

Caitlin: Absolutely. I’m excited to share this too, because so much of this work is so recent, and I’m hopeful that it’s really going to transform the way that we see the relationships between OCD and PTSD. We know that around 60% of people who have comorbid OCD and PTSD tend to have an experience where PTSD comes first or at the same time, and the OCD comes later. This is sort of that post-traumatic OCD presentation that we’re talking about and that Shala talked about in her article. 

For folks who have this presentation where the PTSD comes first and then the OCD comes along afterwards, unfortunately, we see that those folks tend to have more severe obsessions, more severe compulsions. They’re more likely to struggle with suicidality or to have comorbid agoraphobia or panic disorders. Generally speaking, we see a more severe presentation when the OCD comes after the PTSD and trauma, which is likely indicative of what we’re discussing, which is that when the OCD develops as a way to cope with trauma, it takes on a mind of its own and can be really severe because it’s serving multiple functions in that way.

What we’ve been finding in our recent research—and if folks want to participate, the study will still be active for the next month; we’re going to end it at the end of the year, the OCD and Trauma Overlap Study—what we’re finding is that of the folks who’ve participated in the study, 85% of them feel like there’s some sort of overlap between their OCD and trauma. Of course, there are lots of different ways that OCD and trauma can overlap. 

I published a paper previously where we found that about 45% of people with severe OCD in a residential program felt that a traumatic or stressful event was the direct cause of their OCD on setting. But beyond that, we know that OCD and trauma can intersect in terms of the content of obsessions, the function of compulsions, as we’ve been talking about here, core fears. Some folks describe this, and Shala described this to this, like cyclical relationship where when one thing gets triggered, the other thing gets triggered too. 

This is really where a lot of the research is focusing on now, is how do these things intersect, how often do they intersect, and what does that really look like for people?

Kimberley: Thanks. I found in my practice, for people who have had a traumatic event, as exactly what happened to Shala, and I actually would love for both of you maybe to give some other examples of how this looks for people and how it may be experienced, is let’s say the person that was involved in the traumatic event or that place that the traumatic event was recent that recently was revisited just like Shala. Some of them go to doing safety behaviors around that person, place, or event, or they might just notice an uptick in their compulsions that may have completely nothing to do with that. Shala, can you explain a little bit about how you differentiated between what are PTSD symptoms versus OCD, or do you consider them very, very similar? Can you give some insight into that?

SYMPTOMS OF OCD & PTSD 

Shala: Sure. I’ll give some examples of the symptoms of OCD that developed after this PTSD developed, but it’s all post-traumatic OCDs. I consider it to be different from PTSD, but it is merged with PTSD because it’s only there because the PTSD is there. 

For instance, I developed a lot of checking behaviors around the doors to my house—staring, touching, not able to just look once before I go to bed, had to be positively sure the doors were locked, which, as somebody who does this for a living, who helps people stop doing these compulsions, created a decent amount of shame for me too, as I’m doing these compulsions and saying, “Why am I not taking my own advice here? Why am I getting stuck doing this?” 

But my OCD thought that the construction equipment was outside; we’re inside. We need to make sure it stays outside. The only way we do that is to make sure the door stays locked, which is ridiculous. It’s not as if a forklift is going to drive through my front door. As typical with OCD, the compulsions don’t make a lot of sense, but there’s a loose link there.

Another compulsion that I realized after a time was probably linked with PTSD is my people-pleasing, which I’ve always struggled with. In fact, Kimberley, you and I have done another podcast about people-pleasing, something I’ve worked really hard on over the years, but it really accelerated after this. I eventually figured out that that was a compulsion to keep people liking me so that they wouldn’t attack me. That can be an OCD compulsion all by itself, but it was functioning to help the PTSD. 

Those would be two examples of compulsions that could be OCD compulsions on their own, but they would not have been there had the PTSD not been there.

Kimberley: Caitlin, do you want to add anything about that from symptoms or how it might look and be experienced?

Caitlin: Sure, yeah. I think it’s spot on that there’s this element of separation that we can piece apart. This feels a little bit more like OCD; this feels a little bit more like PTSD, but ultimately they’re the same thing, or it’s the same behavior. 

In my work, I usually try to, where I can, piece things apart clinically so that we can figure out what we should do with this particular response that you’re having. When it comes to differentiating compulsions, OCD compulsions and PTSD safety behaviors, we can look towards both the presentation of the behavior as well as the function of it. 

In terms of presentation, I mean, we all know what compulsions can look like. They can be very rigid. There can be a set of rules that they have to be completed with. They’re often characterized by a lot of doubting, like in Shala’s case, the checking that, “Well, okay, I checked, but I’m not actually sure, so let me check one more time.” Whereas in PTSD, although it’s possible for that to happen, those safety behaviors, usually, it’s a little bit easier to disengage from. Once I feel like I’ve established a sense of safety, then I feel like I can disengage from that. There doesn’t tend to be kind of that like rigidity and a set of rules or magical thinking that comes along with an OCD compulsion. 

In terms of the function, and this is where it gets a little bit murky with post-traumatic OCD, broadly speaking, the function of PTSD safety behaviors is to try to prevent trauma from occurring again in the future. Whereas OCD compulsions, generally speaking, are a way to obtain certainty about something or prevent some sort of feared catastrophe related to someone’s obsession. But of course, when the OCD is functioning along with the PTSD to cope with trauma, to prevent future trauma, that gets a little bit murkier. 

In my work, like I said, I try to piece apart, are there elements of this that we can try to resist from more of an ERP OCD standpoint? If there’s a set of rules or a specific way that you’re checking the door, maybe we can work on reducing some of that while still having that PTSD perspective of being a little bit more lenient about weaning off safety behaviors over time.

TREATMENT FOR OCD AND PTSD

Kimberley: It’s a perfect segue into us talking about the treatment here. Caitlin, could you maybe share the treatment options for these conditions, specifically post-traumatic OCD, but maybe in general, all three?

Caitlin: Absolutely. The APA, a few years back, reviewed all the available literature on PTSD treatments, and they created this hierarchy of the treatments that have the most evidence base and went down from there. From their review of all the research that’s been done, there were four treatments that emerged as being the most effective for PTSD. That would be broadly cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive therapy. But then there are two treatments that have been specifically created to target PTSD, and that would be prolonged exposure or PE, and cognitive processing therapy or CBT. These all fall under the umbrella of CBT treatments, but they’re just a little bit more specific in their approach.

And then, of course, we know of ACT and EMDR and these other treatments that folks use as well. Those fall in the second tier, where there’s a lot of evidence that those work for folks as well, but that top tier has the most evidence. 

These treatments can be used in combination with OCD treatments like ERP. There are different ways that folks can combine them. They can do full protocols of both. They could borrow aspects of some treatments, or they could choose to focus really on if there’s a very clear primary diagnosis to treat that one first before moving on to the secondary diagnosis.

TREATMENT EXAMPLES FOR POST-TRAUMATIC OCD

Kimberley: Amazing. Shala, if you’re comfortable, can you give some examples of what treatment looked like for you and what that was like for you both having OCD and PTOCD? 

Shala: Yes, and I think to set the ground for why the combined treatment working on the PTSD and the OCD together can be so important, a couple of features of how all this was presenting for me was the shift in the focus of the uncertainty. With OCD, it’s all about an intolerance of uncertainty and not knowing whether these what-ifs that OCD is getting stuck on are true or going to happen. But what I noticed when I developed PTSD and then the OCD came in to help was that the focus of the uncertainty shifted to it’s not what if it’s going to happen. The only what-if is when it was going to happen because something bad happening became a given. 

The uncertainty shifted to only when and where that bad thing was going to happen, which meant that I had lower insight. I’ve always had pretty good insight into my OCD, even before I got treatment. Many people with OCD too, we know what we’re doing doesn’t make any sense; we just can’t stop doing it.

With this combined presentation, there was a part of me that was saying, “Yeah, I really do need to be staring at the door. This is really important to make sure I keep that construction equipment out.” That lowered insight is a feature of this combined presentation that I think makes the type of treatment that we do more important, because we want to address both of the drivers, both the PTSD and the OCD.

The treatment that I did was in a staged process. First, I had to find a treatment provider, and Caitlin has a wonderful list of evidence-based treatment providers who can provide treatment for both on her website, which is great. I found somebody actually who ended up being on Caitlin’s list and worked with that person, and she wanted to start out doing prolonged exposure, which I pushed back on a little bit. Sometimes when you’re a therapist and you’re being the client, it’s hard not to get in the other person’s chair. But I pushed back on that because I said, “Well, I don’t think I need to do prolonged exposure on the original accident,” because that’s what she was suggesting we do, the accident when I was four. I said, “Because I wrote a book, Is Fred in the Refrigerator? and the very first chapter is the accident,” and I talked all about the accident. She explained, “That’s a little bit different than the way we would do it in prolonged exposure.”

What’s telling, I think, is that when I worked on the audiobook version of Fred—I was doing the narration, I was in a studio, and I had an engineer and a director; they were on one side of the glass, I’m on the other side of the glass—I had a really hard time getting through that first chapter of the book because I kept breaking down. They’d have to stop everything, and I had to get myself together, and we had to start again, and that happened over and over and over again. 

Even though I had relived, so to speak, this story on paper, I guess that was the problem. I was still reliving it. That’s probably the right word. Prolonged exposure is what I needed to do because I needed to be able to be in the presence of that story and have it be a story in the past and not something that I was experiencing right then. 

I started with prolonged exposure. After I did that, I moved on to cognitive processing therapy because I had a lot of distorted beliefs around life and the trauma that we call “stuck points” in cognitive processing therapy that I needed to work through. There were a good 20 or so stuck-point beliefs. “If I don’t treat people perfectly nicely, they’re going to attack me somehow.” Things that could be related directly to the compulsions, but also just things like, “The world is dangerous. If I’m not vigilant all the time, something bad is going to happen to me.” I had to work on reframing all of those because I was living my life based on those beliefs, which was keeping the trauma going. 

I recreated a new set of beliefs and then brought exposure in to work on doing exposures that helped me act as if those new beliefs were the right way to live. If my stuck point is I need to be hypervigilant because of the way something bad is going to happen to me, and I’m walking around like this, which was not an exaggeration of really how I was living my life when this was all happening—if I’m living like that, if I’m acting in a hypervigilant way, I am reinforcing these beliefs. I need to go do exposures where I can walk by a dump truck without all the hypervigilance to let all that tension go, walk by it, realize what I’ve learned, and walk by it again. 

It was a combination of all these and making sure that I was doing these exposures, both to stop the compulsions I was doing, like the door checking, but also to start living in a different way so that I wasn’t in my approach to life, reinforcing the fact that my PTSD thought the world was dangerous. 

I also incorporated some DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) because what I found with this combination was I was experiencing a lot more intense emotions than I’d really ever experienced in having OCD by itself. With OCD, it was mostly just out-of-this-world anxiety, but with the combination of PTSD and OCD, there were a lot more emotional swings of all sorts of different kinds that I needed to learn and had to deal with.

Part of that too was just learning how to be in the presence of these PTSD symptoms, which are very physiological. Not like OCD symptoms aren’t, but they tend to be somewhat more extreme, almost panicky-like feelings. When you’re in the flashbacks or flash forwards, you can feel dissociated, and you’re numbing out and all of that.

I'm learning to be in the presence of those symptoms without reacting negatively to them, because if I’m having some sort of feelings of hypervigilance that are coming because I’m near a piece of construction equipment and I haven’t practiced my ERP (Expsoure & Response Prevention) for a while, if I react negatively and say, “Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t be having these symptoms. I’ve done my therapy. I shouldn’t be having these feelings right now,” it’s just going to make it worse.

Really, a lot of this work on the emotional side was learning how to just be with the feelings. If I have symptoms, because they happen every now and then—if I have symptoms, then I’m accepting them. I’m not making them worse by a negative reaction to the reaction my PTSD is having. 

That was a lot of the tail end of the work, was learning how to be okay with the fact that sometimes you’re going to have some PTSD symptoms, and that’s okay. But overreacting to them is going to make it worse.

 Kimberley: Thank you so much for sharing that. I just want to maybe clarify for those who are listening. You talked about CPT, you talked about DBT, and you also talked about prolonged exposure. In the prolonged exposure, you were exposing yourself to the dump truck? Is that correct?

Shala: In the prolonged exposure, I was doing two different things. One is the story of the accident that I was in. Going back to that accident that I thought I had fully habituated to through writing my book and doing all that, I had to learn how to be in the presence of that story without reliving it while seeing it as something that happened to me, but it’s not happening to me right now. That was the imaginal part of the prolonged exposure. 

This is where the overlap between the disorders and the treatment can get confusing of what is part of what. You can do the in vivo exposure part of prolonged exposure. Those can also look a lot like just ERP for OCD, where we’re going and we’re standing beside a dump truck and dropping the hypervigilant safety behaviors because we need to be able to do that to prove to our brain we can tolerate being in this environment. It isn’t a dangerous environment to stand by a jump truck. It’s not what happened when I was four. Those are the two parts that we’re looking at there—the imaginal exposure, which is the story, and then we’ve got the in vivo exposures, which are going back and being in the presence of triggers, and also from an OCD perspective without compulsive safety behaviors.

Kimberley: Amazing. What I would clarify, but please any of you jump in just for the listeners, if this is all new to you, what we’re not saying is, let’s say if there was someone who was abusive to you as a child, that you would then expose yourself to them for the sake of getting better from your PTSD. I think the decisions you made on what to expose yourself were done with a therapist, Shala? They helped you make those decisions based on what was helpful and effective for you? Do either of you want to speak to what we do and what we don’t expose ourselves to in prolonged exposure?

Caitlin: Yeah. I’m glad that you’re clarifying that too, because this is a big part of PE that is actually a little bit different from ERP. When somebody has experienced trauma, when they have PTSD, their internal alarm system just goes haywire. Just like in Shala’s example, anything that serves as a reminder or a trigger of the trauma, the brain just automatically interprets as this thing is dangerous; I have to get away from it. 

In PE, a lot of what we’re doing is helping people to recalibrate that internal alarm system so that they can better learn or relearn safe versus actual threat. When you’re developing a hierarchy with someone in PE, you might have very explicit conversations about how safe is this exposure really, because we never want to put someone in a situation where they would be unsafe, such as, like you described, interacting with an abuser. 

In ERP, we’d probably be less likely to go through the exposures and say, “This one’s actually safe; I want you to do it,” because so much of the treatment is about tolerating uncertainty about feared outcomes. But in PE, we might have these explicit conversations. “Do other people you know do this activity or go to this place in town?” There are probably construction sites that wouldn’t be safe for Shala to go to. They’d be objectively dangerous, and we’d never have her go and do things that would put her in harm’s way.

Kimberley: Thank you. I just wanted to clarify on that, particularly for folks who are hearing this for the first time. I’m so grateful that we’re having this conversation again. I think it’s going to be so eye-opening for people. Caitlin, can you share any final words for the listeners? What resources would you encourage them to listen to? Is there anything that you feel we missed in our conversation today for the listeners?

Caitlin: I think, generally, I like to always leave on a note of hope. Again, I’m so grateful that Shala is here and gets to describe her experience with such vulnerability because it gives hope that you can hear about someone who was at their worst, and maybe things felt hopeless in that moment. But she was able to access the help that she needed and use the tools that she had from her own training too, which helped, and really move through this. 

There isn’t sort of a final point where it’s like, “Okay, cool, I’m done. The trauma is never going to bother me again.” But it doesn’t have to have that grip on your life any longer, and you don’t need to rely on OCD to keep you safe from trauma. 

There are treatments out there that work. Like it was mentioned, I have a directory of OCD and PTSD treatment providers available on my website, which is www.cmpinciotti.com that folks can access if they’re looking for a therapist. If you’re a therapist listening and you believe that you belong in this directory, there’s a way to reach out to me through the website. 

I’d also say too that if folks are willing and interested, participating in the research that’s happening right now really helps us to understand OCD and PTSD better so that we can better support people. If you’re interested in participating in the OCD and trauma study that I mentioned, you can email me at OCDTraumaStudy@bcm.edu.

I also have another study that’s more recent that will help to answer the question of how many people with OCD have experienced trauma and what are those more commonly endorsed ways that people feel that OCD and trauma intersect for them. That one’s ultra-brief. It’s a 10-minute really quick survey, NationalOCDSurvey@bcm.edu and I’m happy to share that anonymous link with you as well/

Kimberley: Thank you. Thank you so much. Shala, can you share any final words about your experience or what you want the listeners to hear?

Shala: One thing I’d like to share is a mistake that I made as part of my recovery that I would love for other people not to make. I’d like to talk a little bit about that, because I think it could be helpful. The mistake that I made in trying to be a good client, a good therapy client, is I was micro-monitoring my recovery. “How many PTSD symptoms am I having? Well, I’m still having symptoms.” I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic, or I had a bad dream, or I had a flash forward. “Why am I having this? I must not be doing things right.”

And then I took it a step further and said, “It would be great if I could track the physiological markers of my PTSD so I can make sure I’m keeping them under control.” I got a piece of tracking technology that enabled me to track heart rate and heart rate variability and sleep and all this stuff. At first, it was okay, but then the technology that I was using changed their algorithm, and all of a sudden my stats weren’t good anymore, and I started freaking out. “Oh my gosh, my sleep is bad. My atrophy is going down. This is bad. What am I doing?” I was trying with the best of intentions to quantify, make sure I’m doing things right, focus on recovery. But what I was doing was focusing on the remaining symptoms that were there, and I was making them worse. 

What I have learned is that eventually, things got so bad—in fact, with my sleep—that I got so frustrated with the tracking technology. I said, “I’m not wearing it anymore.” That’s one of the things that helped me realize what I was doing. When I stopped tracking my sleep, when I let go of all of this and said, “You know what? I’m going to have symptoms,” things got better. 

I would encourage people not to overthink their recovery, not to be in their heads and wake up in the morning and ask, “How much PTSD am I having? How much OCD am I having? If I could just get rid of these last little symptoms, life would be great,” because that’s just going to keep everything going. 

I’ll say this year, two has been a challenging one for me. I’ve been involved in three car accidents this year; none of them my fault. One of my neighbors, whom I don’t know, called the police on me, thinking I was breaking into my own house, which meant that a whole army of police officers ended up at my house at nine o’clock at night. That’s four pretty hard trauma triggers for me in 2023. 

Those kinds of things are going to happen to all of us every now and then. I had a lot of symptoms. I had a lot of PTSD symptoms and a lot of OCD symptoms in the wake of those events, and that’s okay. It’s not that I want them to be there, but that’s just my brain reacting. That’s my brain trying to come to terms with what happened and how safe we are and trying to get back to a level playing field. 

I think it’s really important for anybody else out there who’s suffering from one or the other, or both of these disorders to recognize we’re going to have symptoms sometimes. Just like with OCD, you’re going to have symptoms sometimes. It’s okay. It’s the pushing away. It’s the rejecting of the symptoms. It’s the shaming yourself for having the symptoms that causes the symptoms to get worse. 

Really, there is an element of self-compassion for OCD here. I like having bracelets to remind me. This is the self-compassion bracelet that I’ve had for years that I wear. By the way, this is not the tracking technology. I’m not using tracking technology anymore. But remembering self-compassion and telling yourself, “I’m having symptoms right now, and this is really hard. I’m anxious; I feel a little bit hypervigilant, but this is part of recovery from PTOCD. Most people with PTOCD experience this at some point. So I’m going to give myself a break, give myself permission to feel what I’m feeling, recognize how much progress I’ve made, and, when I feel ready, do some of my therapy homework to help me move past this, but in a nonhypervigilant, nonmicro monitoring way.”

As I have dropped down into acceptance of these symptoms, my symptoms have gotten a lot better. I think that’s a really important takeaway. Yes, we want to work hard in our therapy, yes, we want to do the homework, but we also want to work on accepting because, in the acceptance, we learn that having these symptoms sometimes is just a part of life, and it’s okay. 

I would echo what Caitlin said in that you can have a ton of hope if you have these disorders, in that we have good treatment. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer than working on either one or the other, but that makes sense because you’re working on two. But we have good treatment, and you can get back to living a joyful life. 

Always have hope and don’t give up, because sometimes it can be a long road, especially when you have a combined presentation. But you can tame both of these disorders and reclaim your life.

Kimberle: You guys are so good. I’m so grateful we got to do this. I feel like it’s such an important conversation, and both of you bring such wonderful expertise and lived experience. I’m so grateful. Thank you both for coming on and talking about this with me today. I’m so grateful.

Shala: Thank you for having us.

Caitlin: Yes, thank you. This was wonderful.

Kimberley: Thank you so much, guys.

RESOURCES: 

The two studies CAITLIN referenced are:

Nov 10, 2023

When things get hard, it’s really quite difficult to find a reason to keep going. Today, we have an incredible guest, Shaun Flores, talking about what keeps us going. This was a complete impromptu conversation. We had come on to record a podcast on a completely different topic. However, quickly after getting chatting, it became so apparent that this was the conversation we both desperately wanted to have. And so, we jumped in and talked about what it’s like in the moments when things are really difficult, when we’re feeling like giving up, we are hopeless, we’re not sure what the next step is. We wanted to talk about what does keep us going. 



This is, again, a conversation that was very raw. We both talked about our own struggles with finding meaning, moving forward, and struggling with what keeps us going. I hope you find it as beautiful a conversation as I did. My heart was full for days after recording this, and I’m so honored that Sean came on and was so vulnerable and talked so beautifully about the process of finding a point and finding a reason to keep going. I hope you enjoy it just as much as I did.

What Keeps Up Going (With Shaun Flores)

Shaun: Thank you so much for being able to have this conversation.

Kimberley: Can you tell us just a little background on you and what your personal, just general mental health journey has looked like?

Shaun: Yeah. My own journey of mental health has been a tumultuous one, to say the very least. For around five to six years ago, I would say I was living with really bad health anxiety to the point where I obsessed. I constantly had an STI or an STD. I’d go to the clinic backward and forward, get tested to make sure I didn’t have anything. But the results never proved to be in any way, shape, or form sufficient enough for me to be like, “Okay, cool. I don’t have anything.” I kept going back and forward. 

How I knew that became the worst possible thing. I paid 300 pounds for the same-day test results. Just to give people’s perspective, 300 pounds is a lot. That’s when I was like, “There’s something wrong. I just don’t know what it is.” But in some ways, I thought I was being a diligent citizen in society, doing what I needed to do to make sure I take care of myself and to practice what was safe sex.

But then that fear migrated onto this sudden overnight change where I woke up and I thought, “What if I was gay?”  overnight. I just quite literally woke up. I had a dream of a white guy in boxes, and I woke up with the most irrational thought that I had suddenly become gay. I felt my identity had come collapsing. I felt everything in my world had shaken overnight. 

I threw up in the toilet that morning, and at that time I was in the modeling industry. Looking back now, I was going through disordered eating, and I’m very careful with using the word “eating disorder.” That’s why I call it “disordered eating.” I was never formally diagnosed, but I used to starve myself. I took diuretics to maintain a certain cheekbone structure. Because in the industry that I was in, I was comparing myself to a lot of the young men that were there, believing that I needed to look a certain kind of way. 

When I look back at my photos now, I was very gaunt-looking. I was being positively affirmed by all the people around me. I hated how round my face was. If I woke up in the morning and my face was round, I would drink about four liters of water with cleavers tincture. I took dandelion extracts. Those are some of the things that I took to drain my lymphatic system. I went on this quest for a model face.

And then eventually, I left the industry because it just wasn’t healthy for me in any way, shape, or form. I was still living with this fear that I was gay. If I went to the sauna and steam room in the gym, I would just obsess 24/7 that if I could notice the guy’s got a good-looking body, or if he’s good-looking, this meant I’m gay. It was just constant, 24/7. From the minute I slept to the minute I woke up, it was always there. 

Then that fear moved on to sexual assault. I had a really big panic attack where I was terrified. I asked one of my friends, “Are you sure I haven’t done anything? Are you sure I haven’t done anything?” I kept asking her over and over. I screamed at her to leave because I was so scared. I must’ve been hearing voices, and I was terrified that I could potentially hurt her. I tried to go to sleep that night, and there were suicide images in my head, blood, and I was like, “There’s something up.” I just didn’t know what was going on. I had no scooby, nothing. 

That night, I went to the hospital, and the mental health team said that they probably would suggest I get therapy. I said, “It’s cool. I’ll go and find my own therapist.” I started therapy, and the therapy made me a hundred times worse. I was doing talk therapy. We were trying to get to the root of all my thoughts. We were trying to figure out my childhood. Don’t get me wrong, there’s relevance to that. By that time, it was not what I needed. 

And then last year, this is when everything was happening in regards to the breakdown that I had as well. I got to such a bad point with my mental health that I no longer wanted to be alive. I wanted time to swallow me up. I couldn’t understand the thoughts I was having. I was out in front of my friends, and I had really bad suicidal thoughts. I believed I was suicidal right off the bat. I got into an Uber, called all my friends, and just told them I’m depressed and I no longer want to be alive. I’m the kind of guy in the friendship group everyone looks up to, almost in some ways, as a leader, so people didn’t really know what to do. That’s me saying as a self-elected leader. That’s me being reflective about my friendship group.

But I woke up one day, and it was a Saturday, the 4th of June, and I just said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I said, “I can’t do this.” I was prepared to probably take my life, potentially. I reached out to hundreds of people via Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, email, wherever it was, begging for help because I looked on the internet and was trying to figure out what was it that was going on with me. I was like, “Why am I having certain thoughts, but I don’t want to act on them?” And OCD popped up, so I believed I had OCD

When I found this lady called Emma Garrick (The Anxiety Whisperer) on Saturday, the 4th of June, I just pleaded with her for a phone call. She picked up the phone, and I just burst out in tears. I said, “What’s wrong with me?” I said, “I don’t want to hurt anyone. Why am I having the thoughts I’m having?” And she said, “Shaun, you have OCD.” From there on, my life changed dramatically. We began therapy on Monday. I would cry for about two hours in a session. I couldn’t cope. I lost my job. There were so many different things that happened that year. 

In that same year, obviously, I had OCD. I tore my knee ligaments in my right knee. Then I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. Then my auntie died. Then my cousin was unfortunately murdered. Then my half-brother died. Then my auntie—it’s one of my aunties that helped to raise me when my dad died on Christmas day when I was six—her cancer spread from the pancreas to the liver. 

Then fast-forward it to this year, about a couple of months ago, that same auntie, the cancer became terminal and spread from the liver to the spleen. I watched her die, and that was tough. Then I had my surgery on August the 14th. But I’m still paying my way through debt. It was an incredibly tough journey. I’m still doing the rehab for my knee, still doing the rehab for OCD. 

That’s my journey. I’m still thinking about it to this day. Me and my therapist talk about this, and he has lived experience of OCD. I still don’t even know what’s kept me alive at this point, but that’s the best way to describe my story. That’s a shortened, more condensed version for people listening.

Kimberley: Can I ask, what does keep you going?

Shaun: What keeps me going? If I’m being very honest, I don’t know sometimes. There are days when I’ve really struggled with darkness, sadness, and a sense of hopelessness sometimes. I ride it out. I try not to give in to those suicidal thoughts that pop up. And then I remember I’ve got a community that I’ve been able to create, a community that I’m able to help and inspire other people. I think I keep going on my worst days because the people around me need someone to keep inspiring them. What I mean by that is some of the messages I’ve got on the internet, some of them have made me cry. Some of them have made me absolutely break down from some people who have opened up to me and shared their entire story. They look up to me, and I’m just like, “Wow, I can’t give up now. This isn’t the end.” I’ve had really dark moments, and I think a lot of people look at my story and perhaps look at my social media, and they think I’m healed and I’ve fully recovered. But my therapist has seen me at my worst, and they see me at my absolute best. 

I think I stay here. What keeps me pushing is to help other people, to give other people a chance, and to let them know that you can live a life with OCD, anxiety. Depression I’m not sure if I fully align with. Maybe to some degree, but to let them know they can live a life in spite of that. I don’t know. Again, I keep saying this to my therapist. There’s something in me that just refuses to quit. I don’t know what it is. I can’t put it into words sometimes. I don’t know. Maybe it’s to leave the world in a better place than I found it. I really do not know. 

Kimberley: I think I’m so intrigued. I’m so curious here. I think that this is such a conversation for everyone to have. I will tell you that it’s interesting, Shaun, because I’m so grateful for you, number one, that we’re having this conversation, and it’s so raw. Somebody a few months ago asked me, what’s the actual point of all this? It was her asking me to do a podcast on the point, what’s the point of all this? I wrote it down and started scripting out some ideas, and I just couldn’t do the episode because I don’t know the answer either. I don’t know what the point is. But I love this idea that we’re talking about of what keeps us going when things are so hard. Because I said you’re obviously resilient, and you’re like, “No, that’s not it.” But you are. I mean, so clearly you are. It’s one of your qualities. But I love this idea of what keeps you going. 

In the day, in the moment to moment, what goes through your mind that keeps you moving towards? You’re obviously getting treatment; you’re obviously trying to reduce compulsions, stop rumination, or whatever that might be. What does that sound like in your brain that keeps you going?

Shaun: Before I answer that, I think I’ve realized what my answer would be for what keeps me going. I think it’s hope because it makes me feel a bit emotional. When I was at my absolute worst, I had lost hope, lost everything. I lost my job. I end up in mountains of debt that I’m still paying off. It’s to give hope to other people that your life can get better. I would say it has to be hope. 

In those day-to-day moments, one of my really close friends, Dave, has again seen me at my worst and my best. Those day-to-day moments are incredibly tough. I’ve had to learn to do things even when I don’t want to do them. I’ve had to learn to eat when I don’t always want to eat, to stick to the discipline, to stick to the process, to get out of bed, and to keep pushing that something has to change. These hard times cannot last forever. But those day-to-day moments can be incredibly tough when my themes change, when I mourn my old life with OCD in the sense that I never thought consciously about a lot of my decisions. Whereas now, I think a lot more about what I do, the impact I have on the world, and the repercussions of certain decisions that I make. 

I would say a lot of my day-to-day, those moment-to-moments, is a bit more trepidation. I think that would be the best way to describe my day-to-day moments. I was just going to say, I was even saying to my friend that I can’t wait to do something as simple as saving money again. I’m trying to clear off everything to restart and just the simple things of being able to actually just save again, to be able to get into a stable job to prove to myself that I can get my life back.  

Kimberley: To me, the reason that I’m so, again, grateful that we’re here talking about this is it really pulls on all of the themes that we get trained in in psychology in terms of taking one step at a time. They talk about this idea of grit, like you keep getting up even though you get knocked down. I don’t think we talk about that enough. Also, the fact that most people who have OCD or a mental health issue are also handling financial stresses and, like you said, medical conditions, grief, and all of these things. You’re living proof of these concepts and you’re here telling us about them. How does that land for you? Or do you want to maybe speak to that a little more?

Shaun: I was reading a book on grits. I was listening to it, and they were talking about how some people are just grittier than other people. Some people may not be as intelligent or may not be as “naturally gifted,” but some people are grittier than other people. A lot of people who live with chronic conditions such as OCD or whatever else, you have to be gritty. That’s probably a quality you really have to have every single day without realizing it. To speak to that, even on the days when I have really struggled, as I said, I don’t know what always gets me up. There’s something inside. 

I look around at the other people around me who've shown grit as well—other people around me who have worked through it. The therapist I have, he’s a really good therapist. I listen to his story, Johnny Say, and he talks about something called gentle relentlessness, the idea that you just keep being relentless very gently. You know that one step-a-day kind of mentality that, “Okay, cool, I’m having these thoughts today. I’m going to show myself some compassion, but I’m going to keep moving.” For me, when I speak to him, I tell him he inspires me massively because he’s perfected and honed his skills so much of OCD that he’s able to do the job that he does. He’s able to help other people, and that inspires me.

When I look at the other people around me, I’m inspired by other people’s grit and perseverance as well. That really speaks to what I need to be able to have. I think it’s modeled a lot for me. Even in my own personal life with my mom, there’s a lot of things that we’ve gone through—my father, who died on Christmas Day when I was six—and she had to be gritty in her own way to raise a single boy in the UK when she was in a country she didn’t want to be in because of my granddad. 

I think grit has been modeled for me. I think it really has been role-modeled for me in so many different ways. When people say, “Just get up and keep going,” I think it’s such a false notion that people really don’t understand the complexity of human emotions and don’t understand that, as humans, we go up and we go down. A very long time ago, I used to be that kind of human where I was like, “Just get out, man. Suck it up. Just keep going, bro. You can do this. You’ve got this.” I think going through my own stuff has made me realize sometimes we don’t always feel like we’ve got it. We have to follow the plan, not the mood sometimes. But I honestly have to say, I think grit has been role-modeled a lot for me.

Kimberley: Yeah. It’s funny, as you were talking, I was thinking too. I think so often—you talked about this idea of hope—we need to know that somebody else has achieved what we want to achieve. If we have that modeled to us, even if it’s not the exact thing, that’s another thing that keeps us going. You’ve got a mentor, you’ve got a therapist. Or for those of you who don’t have a mentor or therapist, it might be listening to somebody on a podcast and being like, “Well, if they can do it, there has to be hope for me.” I think sometimes if we haven’t got those people in our lives, we maybe want to look for people to inspire and model grit and keep going for us, would you say? 

Shaun: Absolutely. Funnily enough, when I was going through depression as a compulsion, my friend sent me your podcast about depression as a compulsion. The idea is that you feel this depressive feeling, you start investigating it, trying to figure out if you’re depressed, and then it becomes a compulsion. And then, after that compulsion happens, you stay in this spiral with depression or whatever it might be. That’s something else I realized—that having your podcast and listening to talking about being kind, self-criticism, and self-compassion was role modeled a lot for me because, again, growing up, I didn’t have self-compassion. It’s not something we practice in the household or the culture I’m from. But having it role-modeled for me was so big. It is huge. I cannot even put into words how important it is to have people around you who still live with something you live with, and they keep going, because it almost reminds you that it’s not time to give up. 

Sadly, I’ve lost friends to suicide. I found out that someone had died in 2021 at what I thought he had died. We met at a modeling agency when I was modeling. We met at the Black Lives Matter march as well, regardless of whatever your political opinions are for anyone listening. I found that he had died. I remember I messaged some of the friends we had in common. I was like, “What happened?” And nobody knew. A couple of weeks ago, I just typed in his name. Out of nowhere, I just typed, and I was like, “What happened to him?” I found that he had taken his life when he was in university halls. I was just like, "You really don’t know what people are going through." Some people have messaged me and said what I talk about has kept them going. I’m just sitting there like, “Wow, other people have kept me going.” I think that becomes a role-modeled community almost in some ways. 

Kimberley: For sure. It’s funny you mention that. I too have lost some very close people to me from suicide. I think the role model thing goes both directions in that it can also be hard sometimes when people you really love and respect have lost their lives to suicide. I think that we do return to hope, though. I think for every part of me that’s pained by the grief that I feel, hope fuels me back into, how can I help? Maybe I could save one person’s life. Actually, sometimes helping just gets me through a hard day as well. I can totally resonate. I think you’re right. There is a web of inspiration. You inspire somebody else. They inspire you. They’ve been inspired by somebody. It’s like a ladder.

Shaun: Absolutely. I once heard someone say, the best way to lose yourself is in the service of others. One of the things that really got me through depression when I was at the thickest of my OCD was when I said, "How am I going to go and serve other people? How am I going to go and help other people?" When I asked my first therapist, I said, “Why are you so kind to me? Why do you believe in me?” she told me something that really sat with me. She said, “I believe you’re going to go on to help so many other people.” When I released my first story on August the 14th, and I had so many people reach out to me that I knew, people I didn’t know speaking about OCD, I was like, “This is where it begins. That in the suffering, there is hope. In the suffering, I can live. In the suffering, I can find purpose. In the suffering, I can use that to propel me out of pain.” 

But you are right. This conversation has really made me think a lot about how I keep going, like how I’ve been able to just keep pushing because my friends are, again, around me. My therapist knows that there are days when I don’t want to do my therapy. I’ve gone to my physiotherapist, and I’ve said, “You have no idea what I’ve gone through.” I said, “I’m not feeling to do anything. I just want to give up right now.” I said, “I’m tired of this.” I said, “Why is life so hard on me?” Death is one thing. Physical injury is another thing. OCD is another thing. Chasing money is another thing. Everything is a constant uphill battle. It really has made me think a lot about life. It’s made me think a lot about my friends who have opened up to me about their struggles. 

Very similar to you, Kimberley, I want to go on to, at some point, become a therapist and change people’s lives. When people reach out to me, I would love to be able to say to someone, if someone said, “I can’t afford a therapist,” I’d be like, “Let me try and help you and see what I can do on my part.” That kind of kindness or that kind of empathy, that kind of lived experience, that understanding—it's something I really want to give back to other people. It’s hope. Hope is everything.  

Kimberley: Yeah. It’s ever-changing, too. Some days you need one thing, and the next day you need others. For me, sometimes it’s hope. Sometimes it’s, like you said, day-to-day grit. Sometimes it’s stubbornness, like I’m just straight-up stubborn. You know what I mean? 

Shaun: It’s funny you say that. 

Kimberley: We can draw on any quality to get us through these hard things that keep us going. My husband always says too, and now that we’re exploring it and I’m thinking about it, because you and I did not prepare for this, we are really just riffing here—my husband always says when I’ve had a really hard time, which in the moment sounds so silly and so insignificant, but it has also helped, amongst these other things, “Put on the calendar something you’re really looking forward to and remind yourself of that thing you’re going towards every day. It doesn’t even have to be huge, but something that brings you joy, even if it’s got nothing to do with the hard thing you’re going through.” I’ve also found that to be somewhat beneficial, even if it’s a dinner with friends or a concert or an afternoon off to yourself, off work. That has also been really beneficial to me.

Shaun: Yeah. Taking aim at things in the future can give you things to really look forward to. In the thickest of my OCD, I had nothing to look forward to sometimes. I remember I turned down modeling jobs because of my anxiety. The only thing I could look forward to was my therapist, and that was my silver lining in many, many ways. I remember I would say to her, “I’ve been waiting for this session the whole week. I’ve needed this.”

Another thing you touched on that I think made me laugh is stubbornness. There is a refusal. There’s a refusal to lay down. For example, I make jokes about this. I go to the gym sometimes, and I’ll say to the guys, “I’ve had a knee injury. Why are my legs bigger than yours?” That small little bit of fun and a little bit of gest, a bit of banter, as we would say. I’ll go to them, and I’ll be like, “I need to show these guys that my legs are still bigger than theirs and I’ve got an injury. I’m not supposed to be training legs.” Just small things like that have really given me things to look forward to. Something as silly as male ego has been-- I say this to everyone—male, female, anyone. I’m like, “How dare I get sexy? How dare I be mentally unwell but still sexy?” There is an audacity to it. There’s a temerity, a gumption, a goal. There is a stubbornness to go out there into the world and to really show people that, again, you can live with it.

When I delivered my TEDx talk in 2022 at Sheffield Hallam University about masculinity, I remember a lady came up to me afterwards. This is when I was doing something called German Volume Training. It was heavy, very intense training. I put on a lot of muscle in that short space of time. She came up to me and said, “You do not look like a guy who suffered with his mental health at all.” She said, “You look like the complete opposite.” Because people have this idea that people who live with illness are—there’s this archetype in people’s heads—timid, maybe a bit unkempt. They don’t look after themselves. 

It really said a lot to me that there really is no one image of how people look. Even where I live, unfortunately, there’s a lady who screams at people. She shaves her hair. She just sits down there. A very long time ago, I would look at people and judge them. One thing I’ve really learned from living with illness has been we never know what’s happened in people’s lives that has pushed them to the place of where they are. 

There was also another older gentleman, and he smelt very strongly of urine and alcohol. I was on the train with him, and the train was packed. You could just see he was minding his own business. He had a bag on him, and clearly he had alcohol in it. There were two girls that were looking at him with such disgust, contempt, and disdain. It really got to me. It really irked me about the way people looked at him because, in my head, I’m like, “You don’t know what that guy’s gone through. You just have no idea what led him to become clearly an alcoholic. He probably is potentially homeless as well.” I got off that train, and I just felt my views on things had really changed, really changed in life. Dealing with people just-- I don’t know. I’ve gone off on a tangent, but it’s just really sat with me in the sense of looking forward to things—how I look forward to how my views are evolving and how my views on life are changing.

Kimberley: Yeah. I’m sort of taking from what you’re saying. You bring up another way in which you keep going, which is humor, and I’ve heard a lot of people say that. A lot of people say humor gets me through the hardest times. You say you make jokes, and that, I think, is another way we can keep going.

Shaun: Yeah, you are correct. When I go to the gym and I banter all the guys, I’m laughing at them, and typical male ego—that has really helped me on many, many occasions. Even people around me who we have sit down and we have a laugh. There’s times when I quite honestly say to people, my life is a Hollywood movie at this point. I need a book. I need a series of unfortunate events, a trilogy, whatever it might be at this point, because it’s almost as if it can’t be real. Humor has been a propelling agent in me helping to get better, but it’s also been an agent in everything that I do. 

My first therapist, Emma, said to me, “OCD leaves you with a really messed-up sense of humor because you’ve got to learn how to laugh at the thoughts. You’ve got to learn how to not take everything seriously.” I have had some of the most ludicrous thoughts I could imagine. I told my friend, and she started cracking up at me. She started laughing. She’s like, “Do you know how ludicrous this is?” And I said to her, “I know.” 

Or, for example, again, at my absolute worst, I couldn’t even watch MMA, UFC, or boxing because guys were half naked. I couldn’t be around guys who were half naked because of how my sexual orientation OCD used to really play with my head. There were so many ridiculous situations. I would walk outside and I’d have a thought, “Kill the dog,” and I’d be like, “Oh, well, this is bloody fantastic now, isn’t it?” I’ve had images of all sorts in my head. I told my friend, and he started laughing. I was like, “Bro, why are you laughing?” But it made me laugh because it took the seriousness out of what was going on. It really did. 

Humor—it's been huge. It’s funny how that can even maneuver into the concept of cancel culture because there was a comedian who has OCD, and he said, “When was being clean really a bad thing?” I know, obviously, we know the way people see OCD, but he drew light on the fact that he has quite severe OCD himself. He’s using humor clearly to help him get better. But humor has been another thing. Humor, stubbornness, grit, resilience—all these things in my life experience have really helped me to still be here. I still say that as a guy who hasn’t been paid this month from work. I’m on sick leave. I’m still trying to find ways to make money. I’m still trying to train to become a therapist. I’m applying for courses. I’ve applied for a hundred jobs within the National Health Service over here in the UK. That’s just to put it into perspective. Again, as my therapist would say, a gentle relentlessness to keep pushing humor to find some of the joy and some of the sadness that happens.

Kimberley: I cannot tell you how grateful I am that you have allowed us to go here today. I think this is the conversation that we needed to have today, both of us. My heart is so full. Can people hear more about where they can get in touch with you, hear more about you? You’ve talked so beautifully about the real hard times and what’s gotten you through. Where might people get ahold of you?

Shaun: I say to people, you can reach out to me on Instagram, TikTok, wherever you want. I say to people, just reach out, and please feel free to message me. I don’t know whether this has happened to you, Kimberley. Some people reach out to me when they’re really struggling with their OCD, and then some people I never hear from again. Some people don’t turn up to phone calls. I think for a lot of people, there’s a big fear that if they reach out to me, I’m going to hear something that I’ve never heard. I can honestly say to people, I’ve had every thought you could imagine. I’ve had the most ludicrous thoughts. I’ve had pretty much every single theme at this point. I really want, and I really encourage people to please reach out and have a conversation with me. You can find me anywhere on social media.

Kimberley: I have so enjoyed this conversation. Are there any final statements you want to make to finish this off?

Shaun: If you give up now, you’ll never see what life would look like on the other side. That’s the one thing I think I have to really say.

Kimberley: It’s amazing. Thank you.

Nov 3, 2023

If you want to know how to be uncomfortable without making it worse, you’re in the right place. Today, we’re talking all about being uncomfortable and learning how to be uncomfortable in the most skillful, compassionate, respectful, and effective way. This applies to any type of discomfort, whether it be your thoughts, your feelings, any physical sensations, or the pain that you’re feeling. Anything that you’re experiencing as discomfort, we’re here to talk about it today. Let’s do it. 



Welcome back, everybody. For those of you who are new, welcome. My name is Kimberley Quinlan. I’m a marriage and family therapist in the state of California. I’m an anxiety specialist, and I love to talk about being uncomfortable. It’s true, I don’t like being uncomfortable, but I love to talk about being uncomfortable, and I love talking about skillful ways to manage that. 

How to be uncomfortable

WHAT IS DISCOMFORT, REALLY? 

Now, before we get started, let’s first talk about what we mean by being uncomfortable. There are different forms of discomfort. One may be feelings or emotions that you’re having—shame, guilt, anxiety, sadness, anger. Whatever it is that you experience as a feeling can be interpreted and experienced as uncomfortable. 

Another one is sensations. Physical sensations of anxiety, physical sensations of shame, and physical sensations of physical pain. I myself have a chronic illness. Physical sensations can be a great deal of discomfort for us as human beings. We’re also talking about that as well. 

We’re also talking about intrusive thoughts, because thoughts can be uncomfortable too. We can have some pretty horrific, scary, mean, and demanding thoughts, and these thoughts can create a lot of discomfort within us. 

What we want to do here is we want to first acknowledge that discomfort is a normal, natural part of life. It truly is. I know on social media, and I know in life, on TV, and in movies, it’s painted that there are a certain amount of things you can do, and if you were to attain those, well, then you would have a lot less discomfort. But as someone who is a therapist who has treated the widest range of people, I’ve learned that even when they reach fame, a lot of money, or a degree of success, we can see that they have some improved wellness. They do have some decrease in discomfort, but over time, they’re still going to have uncomfortable thoughts. Sometimes having those things creates more uncomfortable thoughts. They’re still going to have physical pain, and they’re still going to have emotions that cause them pain, particularly when they’re not skillful. 

What I’ve really learned as a human being as well is we can have a list of all the things that we think we need in these circumstances to be happy. But if our thoughts and our feelings and our reactions to them aren’t skillful, compassionate, wise, and respectful, we often create more suffering, and we’re right back where we started. 

Now, I don’t want it to be all doom and gloom, because the truth is, I’m bringing you some solutions here today—things that you can apply right away and put into practice, hopefully, as soon as you’ve listened to this podcast. Let’s get to it. 

WHAT MAKES DISCOMFORT WORSE? 

First, I’m wondering whether we can first discuss what it means to make it worse because a lot of you go, “What? Make it worse? Are you telling me I’m to blame?” And that’s not what I’m doing here. But I do think that we can do some kind of inquiry, nonjudgmental inquiry into how we respond to our suffering. 

LIFE IS 50/50

Think of it this way: I am a huge proponent of some Buddhist philosophy here, which is that suffering is a part of life. Discomfort is a part of life. I believe that life is 50/50. There is 50% wonderful, but you’re still going to have 50% hard. Sometimes that percentage will be different, but I think it creates a lot of acceptance when we can come to the fact that there’s going to be good seasons, but there’s also going to be some really hard seasons in our lives. It doesn’t have to be that it’s 50/50 all the time. Sometimes you might be in a really wonderful season. Maybe you’re in a really tough season right now. I’m guessing that’s the case because you’re listening to this episode. I recently went through a really tough season, which inspired me to make this episode for you. But in life, there is suffering. But what we know about that is how we respond to that suffering can actually determine whether we create more and more suffering. 

WE RESIST IT

One way that we make it worse is, when we are experiencing discomfort, we resist it. We try to get rid of it. We clench up around it. We try to push it away. What often happens there is, what you resist persists. That’s a common saying we use in psychotherapy. Another thing to consider here is, the more you try to push it down, the more it’s going to bubble up anyway, but in ways that make you feel completely out of control, completely lost in this experience, and maybe overwhelmed with this experience. Another thing is, the more you resist it, the more you’re feeding your brain a story that it’s important and scary, which often means that it’s going to send out more anxiety hormones when you have that situation come up again. That’s one way we make it worse. 

WE JUDGE IT 

Another way we make it worse is, we judge it. When we have discomfort, we judge it by going, “This is wrong. This is bad. You’re a bad person for having this discomfort. What’s wrong with you for having this discomfort? It shouldn’t be here.” 

WE THROW “TANTRUMS” 

I’ve done a whole episode about this, and this is something that is my toxic trait, which is I go into this emotional tantrum in my head where I’m like, “This is bad. This is wrong. It shouldn’t be happening. It shouldn’t be this way. It should be this other way. It’s not fair. I can’t believe it’s this way.” I totally can catch myself going down a rabbit hole of judging the situation, the circumstance, and myself and my discomfort, which only creates more discomfort for myself. 

WE RUMINATE

Another way we make things worse is rumination, which is similar to what I was just talking about. But rumination is, we try and solve things, we loop on them. Again, it could be a looping on, “Why is this happening? It shouldn’t be happening,” like I just explained. Or maybe it’s trying to figure it out. Often, we ruminate on things that actually don’t have a solution in the long run anyway. 

Maybe you have chronic pain. Let’s say you do, and you’re ruminating, “What could it be? Why is it there?” I mean, the truth is, we don’t usually have a medical degree. Our rumination, it might feel productive, but we don’t actually have the details to know the answer. 

Let’s say something went wrong at work and you made a big mistake, and we ruminate about what we did, how bad it was, and how humiliating it was. But in that situation, we’re trying to solve something that’s already happened that we have no control over anymore. 

For people who have anxiety, maybe they’re trying to ruminate, trying to solve whether bad things will happen in the future, but we all know we can’t solve what’s going to happen in the future. That’s a dead end. That’s a dead-end road, and it again creates more suffering on our part.

WE PUNISH OURSELVES 

The next piece here is, we punish ourselves. We punish ourselves for having discomfort. We might withhold pleasure. We might treat ourselves poorly. We might not show up in ways that really honor our mental health and our self-care because we’ve made a mistake, we are going through a hard time, or we’re having this uncomfortable experience. These things, while in the moment they feel warranted and they feel productive and effective, they’re actually not. All they’re doing is adding to the suffering you’re already experiencing. 

For those of you who say, “Yeah, no, but I deserve to suffer more,” that’s actually not true either. We have to really catch that because punishing someone with this sort of very corporal punishment kind of method—or we need to beat you up—actually, we’ve got so much research to show it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t prevent uncomfortable things from happening. It doesn’t make it so that you don’t make a mistake. You’re a human being. We’re all struggling. We’re all doing the best we can, and we’re not going to do it perfectly. 

HOW TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE, EFFECTIVELY & COMPASSIONATELY

What can you do differently? Let’s now talk about how we can be uncomfortable in an effective, productive,  compassionate, and respectful way. For me, one of the first things that helps me is to really double down on my mindfulness practice. Sometimes the best thing you can do with mindfulness is to become aware that you’re engaging in these behaviors, to catch them, and to label them when you are. It might be as simple as labeling it as “I’m in resistance.” You might just say ‘resistance’ or ‘rumination.’ You’re bringing to your mind and you’re bringing to your attention that you’re engaging in something that you’ve identified as not helpful. That in and of itself can be so helpful.

Now, for those of you who are new to me, I have two episodes that I’ve done on this type of situation in the past. Number one was Episode 188, where I talked about how to tolerate uncomfortable sensations specifically. The other one is Episode 113, which is where we talk about specifically how to manage intrusive thoughts. You can go on there after you’ve listened to this, but stay with me here because I’m going to give you a little step-by-step process. 

MINDFULESS

Number one, with mindfulness, we’re going to identify and become aware that we’re in resistance, that we’re ruminating, that we’re beating ourselves up, and we’re also going to practice non-judgment as best as we can. Think of this like a muscle in your brain. You’re going to practice strengthening that muscle. But once we are aware of it and once we’ve acknowledged that we’re judging, we’re then going to be aware of or bring our attention to where we are in resistance to allowing it to be there because that’s ultimately a part of our work. 

Discomfort rises and falls so much faster when you do nothing about it. What I want to offer you is, the solution, in some way, can be quite simple, which is to do nothing about the discomfort except love it. Be careful and gentle with yourself. Do nothing at all about trying to make it go away. Do nothing at all about punishing yourself. 

NON-JUDGMENT

The non-judgment piece is where we allow it to be there without making a meaning about it. Here’s an example. You’ve had an intrusive thought that was really, really scary, and you wish you didn’t have it. You actually are concerned about it. It alarmed you. What you can do is, in that moment, acknowledge that thoughts are thoughts. They’re not facts. They don’t mean anything. They’re just sentences that our brains come up with. What we often do is, when we have it, we think, “What does that mean about me? Why am I having this thought? Why am I having this sensation? Why am I having this anxiety? Why am I having this anger? Why am I having this shame? Why am I anxious in this social situation? Why is this hard?”

NOT OVER-IDENTIFYING

What we want to come back to is not making meaning of it, not over-identifying with it and just acknowledging that this is a normal part of human life. This is a normal part of being a human. We all have intrusive thoughts. We all have strong emotions, some more than others. But if you’re someone who has strong emotions more than you maybe think others are, there’s a couple of things I want you to remember. Number one, we actually don’t know how other people are doing, so you can’t actually say that they’re not having these emotions. Maybe they are. 

Often, people will say to me, “You always seem so calm.” I’m like, “Oh, you have no idea.” Like, yeah, I am calm in many situations, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have anxiety about certain things or big, big, big emotions about certain things. You just don’t see it. You don’t see it on the camera; you don’t see it in the podcast. You don’t see it in my daily life. It’s at home in my mind when I’m experiencing it as I’m regulating. But we want to work at not over-identifying with “What does it mean about me” and that “I’m bad for having these experiences.”

One thing you must take away, and I say it quite often, is there is no thought, feeling, sensation, urge, or image that makes you bad. The meditation vault, which we just launched, is an online vault, a collection of meditations for people with sticky thoughts, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and so forth. They’re very, very specific in almost every single one. I work at getting them to not overidentify with the experience they’re having. 

Oh, you’re having an intrusive thought. Let’s not make meaning of what that means about you. 

Oh, you’re having shame. Your shame is telling you that you’re bad. Let’s not agree with it. Let’s acknowledge that it is a thought and a feeling, but it’s not a fact about you. 

You’ve made a mistake; you failed. Okay, we can acknowledge that, but that doesn’t make you a failure. We want to catch over-identifying with what our discomfort is experiencing and how we’re experiencing that discomfort. The over-identification, the labeling, and the making meaning often is what contribute to us feeling double the discomfort. 

MAKE SPACE FOR THE DISCOMFORT

The next thing you want to do is make space for the discomfort. My clients roll their eyes because they know I’m going to say it. I’m going to say, “Why can’t we make some space for this emotion,” or “Would you be willing to make some space for this emotion as it rises and falls?” If we make space for it to be here while we go about our day, while you interact with your child or your loved one, or your client, or your employer or your employee—if we can just make space for it to be there, nonjudgmentally, it tends to be less loud. 

BE WILLING TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE

The whole point of the work that I do here with my patients and with you is to nurture a sense of you having any emotion, any feeling, or any discomfort in a safe way, in a way where you make space for it. I often will say, we want to work towards you being able to have any thought, feeling, sensation, urge, or image so that you know that there’s nothing you can’t handle. If you’re really willing to feel it all, if you’re really willing and have practiced giving yourself permission to feel all the discomfort, there’s very little that can be painful for you. There’s very little that can stump you. There’s very little that can hold you back. 

Often, when people ask me, “How do you do what you do? You spend all day with clients who are suffering, and you’re in the suffering with them. And then you get online and do these videos, or you do social media. How do you do all that?” The only reason, there’s nothing special about me, truly. The only thing about me is I’m willing to feel a lot of discomfort. I really am. The more I practice having it, the more I feel empowered that I can handle anything. 

Confidence to do things isn’t something you just learn and have; you get it by feeling feelings. Having them willingly and making space for them—truly, this is the work. If there’s really anything I’ve learned, it’s that—we have to be better at making space and feeling our feelings and having the discomfort and saying, “Great, this is a wonderful opportunity for me to practice being uncomfortable.” If something gets thrown out of whack this week for you, I urge you to say, “Okay, good. This is another great opportunity for me to practice being uncomfortable. Where do I notice my resistance to being uncomfortable? Where do I notice the judgment? Where do I notice that I overidentify with it? Where do I notice that I’m punishing myself for it?” Okay, good. Now that we know, we’re aware, and we’re non-judgmental, let’s use this as an opportunity to be able to feel any experience that comes up. Things get a whole lot less scary if you’ve already practiced feeling your feelings. 

FEEL YOUR FEELINGS

I actually did a whole podcast on that as well. It’s Episode 65, where I talk about how your feelings are meant for feelings. That’s another resource if you want to jump into that kind of topic as well. But then once you’ve done all that—we’ve done this zooming in and now we zoom out—then you move on with your day. You don’t just sit there and feel your feelings and sit on the couch and stare at the floor going, “I’m feeling my feelings. I’m feeling my feelings. Here they are.” That’s fine if that’s what you feel right about. But ideally, you would take the feelings with you and go mow the lawn or do the things you love or do the things that you need to get done today, your chores or whatever that might be. 

But take this practice with you, because if you can get good at feeling discomfort, then you can marry that skill. It’s a skill. It’s not something that you were born with; it’s something that you can learn to do. But once you get good at that, then you can marry it with, “Now I’m going to go live my life while I use that skill.” And then you 10x your life, truly, 10x your ability. You’re still going to be uncomfortable. You’re still going to have hard days. You’re still going to have some discomfort, but your experience of it will not be one of, “Oh no, geez, I hope it goes away. I hope it’s not strong today. I hope it doesn’t stay all day because it really messes me up.” It won’t be like that. You’ll be like, “It doesn’t matter. I know it’s here, and I’m going to be here with it, and I’m going to make space for it. I’m going to be kind. I’m going to be non-judgmental about it. But it can come. I’ve done it as much.”

One thing I did learn, and I’ll use this as an example, is I used to have the most excruciating sleep anxiety. I used to worry about not sleeping. Because if I didn’t sleep, I’d have massive anxiety. The next day, I’d be teary. I just couldn’t function well. As I got pregnant and went to have my first child, I was so worried about how my mental health would go. 

Don’t get me wrong; not having sleep did impact my mental health for sure. But getting less sleep and having to get up and take care of a baby, and then having to get up and go to work once I’m done with maternity leave, and learning that I can actually get through a day, using my skills, seeing my patients, and managing my emotions, a lot of my sleep anxiety went away because all I could think of was that I’ve done worse. I’ve literally gone a night where I slept for 25 minutes and I still was able to cope. Even if I can’t fall asleep tonight, I know I can handle it. That empowerment is gold. That change in perspective. That attitude shift about discomfort is a game changer. 

Now, of course, you know what I’m going to say. This has to be done with an immense degree of compassion. This has to be done in small, baby steps. I’m not here to tell you to throw yourself into 10 out of 10 discomfort, but if you have to, I still trust and believe wholeheartedly that you can still handle it. I always say to my patients, no one has ever died from discomfort itself. It won’t kill you. It’s just going to be really hard. We can practice holding ourselves kindly as best as we can as we ride that wave. That’s the work. 

A RECAP: BRING ON THE DISCOMFORT

To recap, what makes it worse? Discomfort and uncomfortability get worse when we do anything to try and make it go away. We won’t resist it with this urgency to get it go away. But the solution is acceptance, willingness, non-judgment, compassion, making space for it, and then engaging with your life. Again, I’ll say it again. The solution is accepting the discomfort. Willingness is the willingness to be uncomfortable. The non-judgment of being uncomfortable. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s neutral. It is still uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean you are bad or it’s bad. We’re going to be self-compassionate as we feel this uncomfortable feeling. And then we’re going to keep making space and moving back into our lives, doing maybe baby steps at a time. Even if you do this for 10 seconds, I applaud you. Let’s celebrate you. If you do it for 30 seconds and you’re able to do that multiple times a day, you are on the right track. If you can be uncomfortable for three minutes at a time, you’re basically winning at life. I want to encourage you, this is huge. 

Sometimes, when things are really hard at the Quinlan household and I want to scream, yell, or totally do something that I know I will regret, stopping and saying, “Okay, this is discomfort. Can you stay with it? Can you make space for this for three minutes or 30 seconds,” has given me an opportunity to not say things I don’t mean, to not react in ways that will end up causing me more suffering that keep me in line with my values. This ability to be uncomfortable has saved me from making some big mistakes in my life. Not all of them. I’ve still made mistakes, of course, but relationally, huge mistakes I could have made had I not slowed down and made a little space for the fact that I’m angry. “Okay, I’m going to make space for this anger,” or that I’m hurt, or that I’m really anxious.

There’s been times where I’ve wanted to run away from my anxiety, but my ability to, for 30 seconds at a time or 10 minutes at a time, make space for the anxiety, not judge it, allow it, and bring it on has meant that I've been able to face some really scary things, and that’s what I want for you.

That’s how you’re uncomfortable. Is it easy? No way is not easy. Is it doable? Absolutely. I want to remind you, this is a practice in which you can grow. Before you know it, there will be these moments of empowerment that will shock you, and you can’t believe that you’ve made these changes out of nowhere. I fully and wholeheartedly believe that. I’ve heard it from so many patients and so many students. A lot of you have also shared how helpful it’s been. That is why I say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things, because when we do hard things in a very skilled way, they actually make us feel really empowered, and we have a sense of “I can handle things now.”

All right. It’s a beautiful day to do hard things. Again, please go to CBT School if you’re interested in any of our online courses. They talk about all these kinds of things. We have courses for OCD, anxiety, depression, BFRBs, meditation, mindfulness, time management—the whole deal. My hope is that this type of message can be taken in any area of your life, and hopefully, it makes it so much better. 

Have a great day. 

1